We hope we don’t tick you off with this story, but if you think you’re safe from those nasty, Lyme disease-carrying insects now that the cooler weather is here, forget it.
The black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick, is now grown up and hungry. While young ticks are most active in May and June, adults reach peak activity in the fall, from mid-October until freezing temperatures arrive.
The sesame seed-size adult tick, Ixodes scapularis, does not hibernate, migrate or otherwise disappear once the leaves start falling, according to Kirby Stafford, chief entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
During the summer, cases are high because the nymphs are so tiny. “The bite’s painless and they’re very easy to miss,” Stafford says. The adults are active later in the year and those that have not found a host are still looking in the spring. Only the females, with their skin-ripping appendages known as chelicerae, feed. The males can bite, but it’s rare, Stafford says. The larvae, the stage between nymph and adult, also bite, but they don’t carry the Lyme disease bacteria.
“You have a risk of getting Lyme disease or any of the associated diseases almost any time of the year,” Stafford says. “The years when we have a really mild winter, we have a huge increase in the number of infections” because more people are active outdoors during winter but they “aren’t really thinking ticks.” The only time the ticks are mostly inactive is when the temperature falls into the 30s, but even that depends on how much sunlight there is and how cold it was the night before.
In the fall, Stafford says to “think of your pets, too. You go out for a long walk and you’re both going to be potentially picking up ticks.” There is a pet vaccine for Lyme disease, however.
And if there’s a lot of snow, “People will ask, ‘How are the ticks?’ Well, the ticks are doing just fine” under the insulating blanket, Stafford says.
While the rates of Lyme disease are far higher in June and July than any other month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they never fall off to zero.
There were 2,022 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Connecticut in 2017, according to the state Department of Public Health, a rate of 56.6 per 100,000 residents. (While the disease was first identified in this state, we no longer lead in infections. Vermont and Pennsylvania have far higher infection rates, the CDC reports.)
The state began tracking cases in 1991, when there were 1,192, and the number reached a record 4,631 in 2002. Since 2009, when 4,156 cases were reported, the numbers have been declining, but no one is sure why.
And the deer tick doesn’t transmit just Lyme disease. You can also get babesiosis, caused by a parasite that brings symptoms such as malaria, and human granulocytic anaplasmosis, “a bacterial infection that attacks a certain type of white blood cell” but is easily treated with antibiotics, Stafford says.
If you do find a tick on your body, experts advise to grab the insect with fine tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull upward with a firm, steady motion. Put it in a plastic bag and bring it to your local health department, which will forward it to the experiment station’s tick-testing lab. There’s a form on the station’s website that can be filled out and submitted with the tick.
Meanwhile, there’s a new tick invader — the Asian long-horned tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis).
At the end of August, researchers at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury announced they had found a long-horned tick during a collection in Fairfield County in July. The discovery confirmed state entomologists’ suspicions that the new tick species, well established in several states, including New York and New Jersey, had reached our state.
While livestock, pets and deer are most vulnerable to the long-horned tick, “over in east Asia it carries a host of human pathogens,” including those that cause Lyme and babesiosis, Stafford says. There, it also carries a viral disease, severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (known as SFTSV), which kills 15 percent of its victims.
From China, “this tick was introduced to Australia and New Zealand 100 years ago and [SFTSV] didn’t follow the tick,” Stafford says. In Connecticut, “all of the ticks that have been tested, and some have been tested for this, have all been negative,” he says.
The experiment station relies on people to bring in ticks for testing, what is called “passive surveillance.” Last year, 5,577 ticks were tested.
In order to keep the ticks at bay, cover up and use a repellent. While DEET has long been popular, Stafford also recommends picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Chris Fuentes, founder of Norwalk-based Ranger Ready, which makes an insect repellent with 20 percent picaridin, says DEET is a neurotoxin and a plasticizer and, at 30 percent strength, is absorbed more by the skin. According to REI.com, DEET can damage rubber, plastic, leather, vinyl, rayon, spandex, elastic and auto paint.
Picaridin, which “mimics pepper,” according to Fuentes, “is not greasy and has no odor and DEET is greasy and has odor, which makes people avoid using it. Available in Europe since 1990 and in the United States since 2005, “it’s really undiscovered in our country,” says Fuentes, whose product comes in three sizes, in three different scents and starts at $8.
Stafford also recommends spraying permethrin, an insecticide often used to treat lice, on clothing, because “ticks are repelled and killed when they come in contact with the treated clothes. This is what I use when I’m out in the field doing tick work,” Stafford says.
Another company in Fairfield County, Bugs & Blades of Weston, which started up in June, focuses on chasing insects off people’s property. Owned by Chris Zinkel, the company uses either a natural spray of rosemary and peppermint oil, which lasts 3½ weeks, or deltamethrin, a man-made chemical based on pyrethrins, which are found in chrysanthemums. Permethrin is in the same class of chemicals, which the Environmental Protection Agency has found are less toxic than older insecticides based on phosphates.
Zinkel says the price starts at $49 for a small property and rises depending on the amount of ground coverage and the size of the lot. “Generally, a 2-acre property is $160 to $165,” he says, adding that he’s seen a growing demand for the service since the summer.
Connecticut is entering its beauty time. Get out and enjoy it. Just don’t get bit!